Beethoven and the Power of Understatement

This year as we celebrate the 250th birthday of Beethoven I want to give a nod to the man with the intense furrowed brow. For a while now, I’ve been captivated by the first notes of the very famous Beethoven Symphony No.5. It’s a melody I’m sure we all know well, it ranks up there with Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in recognizability. I’m really focusing on the first 4 unison notes, or 8 notes if you want to think of the repeated eights as different notes, but I mean the G to Eb and F to D part where G and F are 3 eighth notes and Eb and D are held out. My primary fascination with this part is 2 fold: 1. it’s unison so there is no harmonic chord backdrop to set the tonal context and 2. the tonic note is not included in these first notes which further creates ambiguity for the listener about what key its in. Given those 2 points, the listener is left a bit in the lurch as to how to make harmonic sense of it for the first few bars until the unison breaks into chords, at which point it’s clearly in a minor key (C minor). This may not seem terribly unusual, and there are probably other great pieces that do something similar but in my experience I have avoided doing things like this in my composition because I was worried that the listener would not make proper sense of an unsupported melody to start a piece off. I thought it would be confusing and thus not a good experience for the listener but now that I recognize how effectual it was for Beethoven, I must repent of my ways.

As I was pondering these notes, I wondered if the line was really so explicit in suggesting the minor mode that the tonality is obvious even without hearing a C minor chord or even the note C. I imagined just the first 2 tones: G and Eb and that interval is a major third, and then I imagined that the tune “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” starts with that same interval and it’s in the major mode. So I shifted my thinking to favor the idea that it’s not clear what the tonality is going to be when it starts, and that’s an acceptable ambiguity. It may even add interest to the overall experience! So I wondered if this melody could then be fittingly paired with a harmony of the major mode variety. So I devised some chords to go with the same melody that would change it into a major key and you can hear that in the video at 3:52. It works rather well actually for just a passing exercise.

The key takeaway from this experience for me is that time doesn’t just go linearly from start to finish in music; things that happened in the past are not gone forever even though the sound dies away. For the human listener, things at the start of the piece are still resounding much later on. A note alone, or even a chord alone doesn’t mean much by itself, it takes a melody, or a progression to give it meaning, and not only the notes that follow it matter but the notes that preceded it equally so. An event can occur and the full importance of that event won’t be made clear until things that come later give the information needed to process the relevance of the initial event, so it’s fine to leave some things to the imagination and then give clues as the piece progresses to fill in some details, it will probably enhance the listener’s experience.

*in the video I play the piece in G minor instead of C minor, just because I was in the mood for G minor that day I guess.

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